If you're going to pick the Bears to win the Super Bowl, which I am, shouldn't you be certain that they'll beat the lowly Colts, which I'm not?
Maybe it's indicative of a refreshingly high level of parity in the NFL that I expect my pick to win it all will have trouble with a team coming off a 2-14 season. Or maybe Andrew Luck is just that promising. Or maybe I'm crazy for picking the Bears, though authorities ranging from legendary coach Bill Parcells to the video game Madden NFL 13 also have them in the Super Bowl.
It's not that I think the Bears are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. I don''t. Heck, in my more thorough, division-by-division series of NFL previews on my blog, the Morris Mirror (which you can find at morrisdailyherald.com), I don't even have the Bears winning the NFC North. That distinction went to the Packers, though the Bears, obviously, are one of my wild card teams in the NFC.
What we saw in 2011 is that you don't have to be the best team in the league to win the title. The Giants, who were 9-7 during the regular season, certainly weren't that. You only have to do two things. One is play well enough during the regular season to make the playoffs. The other is win three or four games, without losing, once you're there.
The best way to ensure you'll achieve the first part of the equation, it seems, is to be at the forefront of the league's passing revolution. New Orleans, New England and Green Bay were Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in passing yardage last season. None won fewer than 13 games. None of the NFL's top five passing offenses failed to make the playoffs; none of the top 12 finished with losing records.
Chicago ranked 24th in the league in passing, but there are reasons to believe the Bears can improve on that significantly in 2012. One is that Caleb Hanie is no longer around to torpedo their numbers, and their chances of winning. Another is that Jay Cutler didn't have Brandon Marshall, nor Alshon Jeffery, to throw to last season. Jeffery could very well emerge as the Bears' clear-cut No. 2 receiver, behind only Marshall, by later this season.
Other than Luck's Colts and Peyton Manning's Broncos, no team in the NFL is positioned to improve its passing game more this season than the Bears. They may not match the silly production of the Packers and the Saints, but a top-10 ranking isn't unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable to think that improved passing production alone can add 2-3 wins to the eight the Bears had last season.
Assuming the Bears do make the playoffs — and in a loaded conference, I'll readily admit that's no cinch — they'll have to be able to outplay three or four playoff opponents in a row to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. I think they're about as likely as anyone else to be playing at that level in January.
There is no clear-cut superteam standing in their way. Green Bay is probably the closest, as the Packers won 15 games last season even with a defense that was terrible statistically. But the Packers already have a lengthy injury report and the season hasn't yet begun, and question marks remain in their defense, as well as in their offensive line and at running back. They might well be good enough to overcome it all, but they are flawed.
New England and New Orleans have serious defensive issues of their own, and the Saints are facing sanctions from their bounty scandal. The defending champion Giants can't run the ball, and the jury is out on whether they can cover anyone. San Francisco and Baltimore employ Alex Smith and Joe Flacco at quarterback. The Steelers' defense is old.
Pick a contender, and you can find a few flaws in it. The same is true of the Bears, who have major issues in their offensive line and their secondary. If Shea McClellin is a bust — many Bears fans seem resigned to that if being a when, but I'll reserve judgement until the real games start — they may not have an adequate pass rush. And nobody knows for sure what they'll get out of hobbled linebacker Brian Urlacher.
But other than Urlacher's health, all of those problems were problems in November of 2011, when I maintain the Bears were playing at a level that could very well have resulted in a Super Bowl win. They reached that level without Marshall, without Michael Bush, without McClellin and without Jeffery. Imagine the level they might reach with them.
I'm not saying you should bet the farm on the Bears reaching that level and maintaining it through Feb. 3. I'm just saying it's possible, and that in a league in which nobody else is a sure thing, I like their chances enough to pick them. I don't know that they'll make me look smart, for a change, but I can't wait to find out